I have never met Sheffield Nelson in person. This is perhaps unsurprising, given the differences in our political leanings and social circles.
I have, however, spoken to him on the telephone. This morning, in fact.
Let me back up. As the previous two posts have unfolded, I heard from reliable sources that Mr. Nelson had some interesting information about Judge Dan Kemp and Jim Hinkle. Given the continued explanations and excuses being given by and for Kemp in response to my earlier posts–especially the comments that suggesting that Judge Kemp would never do anything untoward and that I was a terrible person for implying this–I finally decided to bite the bullet and see if Mr. Nelson would be willing to talk.
I reached him at his office. Brief introductions and pleasantries were exchanged, what with this still being the south and all. Then, lacking any subtle way to segue into it, I got to the point: did he know anything about Lea Ann Finn’s plea, the Hinkles’ contributions, and/or Judge Kemp?
Mr. Nelson paused. He noted–and later repeated so I did not miss it–that he was talking to me specifically because he was in a position where he had to either lie or tell the truth, and he was not willing to lie.
“You’re not gonna believe what just happened.”
After another brief pause and a slight sigh, Mr. Nelson continued
I got a phone call from a good friend of mine, Jim Hinkle, and his first words were, “You’re not gonna believe what just happened. The judge called me a few minutes ago and told me that he had wound up my daughter’s case that morning, that we should be happy with it, and that he wanted to now get with [Hinkle] to talk about what [Hinkle] was going to do in [Kemp’s] campaign. Kemp said he needed some money and needed [Hinkle] to raise him some money and do some work in his campaign.”
Getting a call from Jim Hinkle was hardly out of the ordinary, Mr. Nelson explained. “Jim and I have been friends for years–probably twenty-five years. He calls me on a lot of things, to talk, just to get my opinions.”
I asked what Hinkle’s tone was like. “He was shocked. In fact,” Nelson noted, “when he called me, he was dismayed. He could not believe that Judge Kemp had personally called him. And this call was just shortly after court had ended, so that means the Judge’s call to Hinkle and Hinkle’s call to me all took place in about a fifteen-minute span.”
I needed more context, so I asked when the calls took place. “More or less immediately after he got out of court. As I understood it, he had another case or two that day [after Ms. Finn’s], but, when he got out of court, he called Jim right away.”
“It would have a strange appearance…”
Mr. Nelson explained that Mr. Hinkle’s call was not for legal advice; it was as a friend, simply asking advice on what he should do.
I said, “Well, Jim, let me tell you something. You’re a good friend, and I don’t want to see you get embarrassed. The judge could get in very serious trouble; you could get embarrassed, and I’d hate to see that.” But I said, “You should not in any way go to work in his campaign or give him money because it would have a strange appearance this soon after your daughter’s case was handled like that. I would be reluctant to do it.”
According to Mr. Nelson, the conversation with Mr. Hinkle lasted another “five or ten minutes,” and that Nelson’s “bottom line” to Hinkle was “don’t do it.”
I said, “I’m telling you, this is not a case where you need to get involved with that guy. Not now.” I said, “He’s the one who created a problem and brought it up–he’s the one who breached the ethical boundaries–but it is just not something that I would think of doing.”
I noted Judge Kemp’s statement from yesterday that “Judge Kemp is not involved in the fundraising aspects of this campaign,” and I asked Mr. Nelson if he was saying that Judge Kemp specifically asked Mr. Hinkle for money.
“[Hinkle] said, ‘The judge said I want you get involved in my campaign: I want you to give me some money, I want you to raise me some money, and I want you to be totally involved in my campaign.'”
Mr. Nelson went on to say, in response to a question from me, that Mr. Hinkle had never said another thing about it to Nelson, and the first time Nelson knew that Hinkle had donated to the campaign was when he saw an article about judicial fundraising totals.
“…between a tremendous rock and a hard place…”
Perhaps spurred slightly by my asking whether Mr. Hinkle ever followed up with him about this, Mr. Nelson stressed that he was not saying that Hinkle had asked for any favors from Judge Kemp.
Let me say this on behalf of Jim: Jim was between a tremendous rock and a hard place. He had a judge who had just dealt with his daughter in a very generous manner and had gotten her out of trouble that had been ongoing for some time. [The Judge] tells Jim that he wants Jim’s help in his campaign in every way. You can turn your back on some people, but it would’ve been very difficult to do that [in this situation]. I think that’s what Jim was caught in.
Mr. Nelson, a lawyer, also noted the difference between Mr. Hinkle’s actions and Judge Kemp’s. “The most Jim is exposed to here is some embarrassment, perhaps. But he shouldn’t be embarrassed; the judge should be terribly embarrassed by what he did here, because he put a tremendous burden on a guy who had been a friend of his for many years.”
Noting that Mr. Nelson had twice referred to potential embarrassment for his friend over this, I asked him if he was worried about that. He said he hoped it would not ruin their friendship, but, in the end, he felt like this was the right thing to do in light of Judge Kemp’s behavior. Referring back to the statement about Judge Kemp having no role in campaign fundraising, Mr. Nelson remarked:
I don’t like for a guy to sit there and lie. He’s lying through his teeth, and he knows it. That shows a lack of credibility, and it doesn’t speak well for him as a judge, because honesty and character and being willing to follow judicial ethics, that’s very important.
“I have no reason at all to doubt Jim.”
Because many of the responses to the posts about Judge Kemp have been to attack others’ credibility, I wanted to be sure that Mr. Nelson believed Mr. Hinkle’s story.
I have no reason at all to doubt Jim. In fact, I’d say that I’ve never known Jim to lie about anything. He is a top-flight individual who has great character. I think he was shocked–I can use that word safely here–because he could just barely talk about it. He said, “Can you believe that happened? Can you believe he did that?” I said, “No, I can’t, Jim. I’ve never seen anything like that. Judges don’t do this sort of thing.”
After a couple more minutes of clarifying a few details for me, I thanked Mr. Nelson for his openness and time. Before we hung up the phone, however, Mr. Nelson mentioned one last thing: “If the judge or Jim or anybody else wants me to go take a lie-detector test, I’m happy to do it.”
He paused for a split second, then added, “I only hope they will go with me so everyone gets the same chance to tell the truth.” And, on that self-assured note, our call was finished.
Now, I am not so naive as to think that there will not still be people who accuse me–and, by extension, Sheffield Nelson–of lying about this. Such is the rather bizarre nature of this race, where any accusation about Dan Kemp is met with vitriolic internet rage.
But if this does not give you at least some pause, then I dare say that this post wasn’t for you in the first place. It was for the people who are still capable of rational thought when it comes to this race.
Some final notes and observations:
- According to Channel 7, the prosecutor in Stone County issued a statement yesterday, claiming that he had reached the plea agreement “more than a year before Kemp launched his bid.” Which sounds believable only until you consider that Ms. Finn was arrested on 10/28/14. Kemp announced 11/6/15. Meaning, for the prosecutor’s statement to be true, he would have had to reach that agreement in an eight-day window between 10/28/14 and 11/5/14, and you would also have to assume that, despite reaching a plea so quickly and easily, that plea was nevertheless not entered until 11/12/15.
- As long as the prosecutor is making statements to other media, however, it would be interesting if someone asked him whether he was aware of Ms. Finn’s prior criminal drug history and whether that was noted in his file and/or factored into his plea offer. And, heck, go ahead and ask why the plea was not entered for over a year if it was reached so quickly. Might even inquire as to why, if it hadn’t been entered for over a year, it was entered at the specific time that it was. Those all seem like valid inquiries.